Where once RAF pilots were shot out of the sky by enemy fire, and Russian prisoners of war awaited their fate in a harsh wilderness, now a patch of naturalised daffodils grows. I’m in the high fens of eastern Belgium, or Ostbelgien, right up against the border with Germany, an atmospheric, wild place, borderland country which once belonged to Prussia, became Belgian after the first world war, only to find itself occupied and its inhabitants forced to fight in the German army in the second world war.
We came here for a much-needed change of scene, to walk in the wooded hills, and to visit Belgium’s largest nature reserve, a remarkable upland plateau of marshland and sphagnum peatbogs, barren, cold, but beautiful, where streams the colour of whisky gurgle through the swampy tussocky marshes and birds of prey hang eerily in the thermals, awaiting the moment to strike.
German influences can be seen and felt everywhere in these parts, even though the region is now largely French-speaking. Despite that, Belgium’s German-speaking minority are officially recognised with their own parliament, and German is one of the three official languages of the country. In the village of Sourbroedt (Sour Bread?) a disused train station where those unfortunate Russian prisoners of war disembarked, has an unmistakably Germanic air.
The rusty trucks parked up on the rails reminded me of the troublesome trucks from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, and an old signal tour marked the beginning of our walk.
The landscape of wooded hills and small fields gives way to sparse moorland, which like other moors I have visited (Dartmoor and Exmoor in England), has an eerie air to it, a sense of secrets buried in the swamps. It’s also very cold, with patches of snow still on the ground, and the weather is wildly unpredictable: we set off in gentle sunshine, but made it back to our car just as a lively snowstorm was getting underway. This is Belgium’s highest point, where the moist winds coming off the North Sea meet their first major land obstacle, and so it’s often cold, snowy or damp.
So it was surprising in the midst of this melancholic landscape to suddenly stumble upon a cheerful cluster of daffodils growing right out of the marshy land. I cannot imagine who planted them, or why, but they have since multiplied and spread, unshackled and free to do as they please.
Not much further on, a striking contrast: the old site of a prisoner of war camp, known as Bôsfagne. Erected in March 1943, it held a group of Russians who had been brought to Sourbroedt by train from the eastern front, and put to work in the fens, cutting wood, clearing snow, working the fields and so on. Not a trace remains of the camp itself, except perhaps a whisper, and a cross in the Russian Orthodox style, which marks the spot. I found the old photographs of the prisoners, displayed on a modest board nearby, haunting.
As the war drew to its conclusion, allied troops approached this part of eastern Belgium, and the prisoners here were transferred to another camp, at Elsenborn, and then deep into Germany. Their fate is unknown, though two died during their internment, both of poisoning: one from eating wild mushrooms, another from indulging in wild game that had clearly past its best.
As we walked on, we came across another reminder of the tragic losses of war, at the site commemorating where an RAF pilot was shot down en route to Cologne.
There’s much older history too, like the medieval castle of Reinhardstein, tucked away on a rocky outcrop in a narrow, wooded valley. As we approached it, the snow started falling, and we were surprised to hear the sound of bagpipes coming from within the castle (I suspect this was for a group of visitors, not a ghostly musician).
The wet conditions in the woods encourage the damp-loving plants to make their home here. There’s lots and lots of moss, many ferns, and also waterfalls lined with what I now know to be opposite-leaved golden saxifrage, Chrysosplenium oppositifolium. What a lovely feature this European native would make in a garden water cascade.
There were also large colonies of butterbur, Petasites hybridus, in shallow woodland streams. Also known as pestilence wort, or even Devil’s hat, this strange plant with pale pink inflorescences was used in traditional medicine as a treatment for infections and fever.
Among the thickets of woodland, bucolic scenes unfold, adding to the peaceful feeling of the place. Peace perhaps somewhat disturbed by Formula One racing cars, as the Spa-Francorchamps racing circuit is incongruously nestled among the hills. As is often the way in Belgium, it is a place of contradictions.